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The Butterfly Effect

Canon Dr Mike D Williams

The summer warmth has brought out the butterflies. I can only admire and wonder at the variety and colouring of such delicate insects. In the UK there are 59 species and globally around 17,500. How so much variety evolves is something of a mystery to all except the experts.

Margaret Silf in her book ‘Hidden Wings’, uses the idea of a caterpillar as a perfect metaphor for our own spiritual journey. A journey from where we are now, to all that we can become. A sign in the Evolution section of the Paris Science Museum made Margaret stop in her tracks: ‘The process of hominization is probably still ongoing, but the process of humanisation has barely begun, and it is still very fragile.’ Hominization describes the process of physical evolution. Humanisation is different: it is the process of becoming more and more fully human; to spiritually evolve we might say.

Our context shapes our view of life and the world around us. I’ve just reread Paul Tillich’s sermon published in 1947 entitled ‘Shaking the Foundations’. His view was heavily influenced by the Second World War and the use of nuclear bombs. He worried that science now had the power to decide the future of humanity. Fast forward to our current context of post-Brexit, post-Trump, climate change, an ongoing pandemic and intensifying volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (or as some term it, VUCA). The apparent instability and volatility are shaking our foundations. There is the temptation for us to stay safe in our caterpillar stage of life.

It can be at such moments of uncertainty and breakdown of the normal that transformation can occur. Returning to the caterpillar, Margaret Silf develops the metaphor with a lesson in biology. Whilst sharing the same DNA there are some cells within the caterpillar that are different. They are known as the imaginal cells. Not because imaginary but rather that they hold the blueprint for the imago, the Latin term for the mature insect. The imaginal cells initially operate independently, supressed by juvenile hormones from the caterpillar’s immune system. As time goes on, they multiply, form clusters and resonate at the new frequency of the emerging butterfly.

Beyond the biology is the deeper wisdom carried by the imaginal cells, the hope of transformation, the willingness to work with others to achieve the change. Let me finish by building on the metaphor to pose some questions to ponder.

What if each of us is potentially an imaginal cell, carrying a still hidden possibility of who we can become?

What if we formed clusters in church to resonate at a new frequency of God’s love, hope and compassion and to create a sense of hope in the future?

What if we become that future where the evolution of humanity becomes less fragile?